How can we know? - Luke 1:1-4

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the Riverside Church service on 30th November 2014.

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How can we know?


Luke 1:1-4 


There is an old Chinese proverb which runs: if you want to know what water is like don’t ask a fish. (Not that I would ask a fish about anything!)-but the point being is that sometimes we can be so familiar with a thing that we don’t really appreciate its full significance. And you know it is like that with Christianity. We have been so used to having had over a millennium of the Christian faith in this land that the profound impact that Jesus Christ has made on every aspect of our culture from government to science, from literature to education is simply lost on us. The historian Jaroslav Pelikan once wrote this: ‘Regardless of what anyone may personally think or believe about him, Jesus of Nazareth has been the dominant figure in the history of Western culture for almost twenty centuries. If it were possible, with some sort of super magnet, to pull out of that history every scrap of metal bearing at least a trace of his name, how much would be left?’ The answer is, of course, very little.


Merely as a historical figure Jesus towers above his nearest competitors. Napoleon Bonaparte once said this of Jesus: ‘Everything in Christ astonishes me. His spirit overawes me, and his will confounds me. Between him and whoever else in the world, there is no possible terms of comparison. He is truly a being by himself. I search in vain in history to find the similar to Jesus Christ, or anything which can approach the gospel.’ His impact cannot be overestimated. Why, even our calendar reflects his coming- distinguishing AD from BC. But from a purely human point of view his monumental impact on the world is very difficult to account for. In his own lifetime he was highly dismissive of the power and glory merchants of his day. Given his homeless lifestyle, today he would be harassed and moved on by the police if he lived in Europe. Given his teenage mother’s lack of a wedding ring, he would be an automatic candidate for abortion if conceived in Britain. And given his ancestry, he would certainly have been pinned with a yellow star and shipped to the nearest death camp had he lived in Germany in the 1930’s. Would you not agree that to any natural enquiring mind some sort of explanation is required? How do you account for this man? Where does he come from? What was he like? What did he do which so changed the world?


Well, within a generation of the lifetime of Jesus one well educated medical doctor, whose name was Luke, decided to find out the answers to some of those questions for himself. He acknowledges in v 2 of chapter 1 that others have engaged in similar research projects, folk who collected together accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus.  It would seem that he had been commissioned to do this by a benefactor by the name of Theophilus who is mentioned in v 4. That he is addressed as ‘excellent’ would suggest his was fairly well to do; it is a term of address like, ‘Your Lordship’. And so no doubt Theophilus has laid out some cash to allow Luke to do the job properly- not only ensuring he has the necessary kit – such as parchments and ink to do the writing, as well as the odd secretary or two to assist him, but maybe to travel in order to interview some of the original characters in the Jesus story, or at least those who knew them well. And this morning under three headings, I want us to think about why this introduction to Luke’s biography of Jesus is so important.


First, the purpose in writing, and just what that is we are told in verse 4, ‘so that you [Theophilus] may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’ Why is all this business of ‘certainty’ important? Surely, it’s all a matter of ‘faith’ with you Christians isn’t it?


You know, if I had a pound for everyone who told me that they had ‘a faith’ I would be quite a rich man.  So what that people claim to have ‘faith’? The really important question is faith in what or whom? Faith is not a virtue in itself. It is not a good thing to believe every spam letter that comes to you claiming that a few million pounds are available to you in an African country if only you will send them your bank details. That is not faith, that’s gullibility. Even to say that you have faith in ‘God’ isn’t much better either, because that raises the question, which god is it that you have faith in? Is it the God of the Bible who has revealed himself so giving us good reasons to believe in him? Or is it that god we would like to believe in but for which we have not a shred of evidence except that it something we would prefer to be true. Well, wishing something to be true doesn’t make it so. I might wish to believe that I have an Aston Martin Vanquish, but I know that when I open my garage door I am simply going to find a Skoda staring back at me- and who is going to make a film with James Bond driving a Skoda? It just isn’t going to happen!


Saving faith, faith which is going to get us from this world to the next by bringing us into a personal relationship with God has three elements, and if any one is missing, then whatever you have it is not Christian faith. First, faith consists of facts- knowing things to be true. All believing has this knowledge component. If I say that I believe that this chair is able to support me, the first thing I have to be sure of is that there is a chair there in the first place. There is or there isn’t. It is a matter of fact. And so it is with the Christian message, it has factual content. It concerns Jesus Christ, a historical figure, who is Lord- the same God as in the Old Testament whose name was Yahweh-LORD. This God-man Jesus was raised from the dead, which means he had died. What is more, this was a special death he died as it was a sacrifice for sins which turns away God’s anger and makes him favourable towards us. Those are the main highlight points in Luke’s Gospel.  In fact he adopts a kind of Old Testament style of writing in the first two chapters to underscore the continuity between the Old Testament and the New as being one of promise and fulfilment, such that all that the Old Testament looked forward too finds their completion in the coming of Jesus. Now, these things are either true or not true. If that is not known and so believed, then there is no Gospel and so no salvation.


The second part of faith is assent; it is through what we say that we express what is in our hearts. Again, this is not anything specifically religious. If I am asked ‘Do you believe that chair can support you?’ two things will be necessary for me to answer in the affirmative. First, I believe there is a chair. And second, I really do think the chair will be able to support me if I were to sit on it. I verbally ‘assent’ to my belief. But you can have both of those things in relation to Jesus Christ and that would still not make you a Christian for this very simple reason: the devil believes both of those things. In fact he believes them far more deeply than you or I ever will. But that doesn’t make him a Christian. And it is so sad and so dangerous when people put themselves in the same position as the devil. Yes, they believe Jesus existed. Yes, they believe he died on the cross. Yes, even when presented with all the evidence, they would even be willing to say, ‘Jesus rose from the dead’. And you know what? It doesn’t make an ‘appeth of difference to the way they conduct their lives.


No, you need the third element which makes all the difference in the world- trust. Yes, I believe there is a chair. Yes, I believe it can support me. And yes, I am going to put that belief into action by sitting on it. Trust is something deep down. Obviously Theophilus had already had that which is why he is a Christian, but there is nothing wrong in wanting to put what he already knows and believes on a firmer footing, perhaps filling in some of the gaps left by some of the other writers like Matthew and Mark, for example that little titbit about Jesus at the age of 12. We are to be FAT Christians- have facts, assent and trust.


But of course we are not talking about believing in an object like a chair, but believing in a person, a person who is so unimaginably pure and kind, whose moral beauty is more entrancing than the most stunning sunset and who will never renege on his promises- especially the promise to save us. We are talking about believing in the Lord Jesus Christ who is the central character in Luke’s narrative.


You know, sometimes people put down reading the Bible with phrases like these: ‘I am not interested in the written word, but the Living Word.’ ‘I worship a person, not a proposition’ ‘For me it is a matter of belief not a book.’ But Luke would tell us that these are all false options- the only way we are going to get to know Jesus- the living Word- is by reading about him in the Bible- the written word. It is only by proposition- words- that we can come to know the person Jesus whom we worship. Do you see?


Well, if that is the purpose, secondly, what about the procedure, how did Luke go about his great research project? We are told about that in verse 3, ‘I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you most excellent Theophilus.’ The word translated ‘investigate’ (akribeia), means to ‘sift out’, ‘to scrutinize’, to ‘subject to a thorough investigation’, just like a doctor carrying out all the tests necessary to diagnose an illness. In other words, Luke is thorough, as we would say, he has left no stone unturned. When I was young there used to be a TV detective series from the United States called, ‘Dragnet’. And one of the detectives in the drama used to say something to those he was interviewing who may have witnessed a crime, which at the time became a bit of a catch phrase, ‘The facts Ma’m, just give me the facts.’ Well, Luke would have echoed that. He didn’t want any fanciful accretions to the Jesus story, anything which would smack of legend or exaggeration; he just wanted ‘the facts’. Now, as we shall see in a minute that doesn’t mean that the people who told him these facts were cold, clinical observers- they were no doubt impacted by what they say and heard and no doubt gave an interpretation to them, but at the end of the day we are talking about things said and done in history- the facts.


And at the end of it all he has written an ‘orderly account’. This doesn’t mean that everything has been put down in strict chronological order, but rather the material has been put together in an orderly way so as to produce a work which has a definite pattern, which flows and makes sense. It is not just some stories thrown together in a hotch potch fashion which is confused and confusing. No, it is designed to make engage our minds and imagination. Just as a doctor doesn’t merely carry out a medical examination as a matter of academic interest, but does them so that the patient can be cured, so Luke is concerned that we should realise that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ God has provided the cure for our greatest disease- the disease of sin.


So where has Luke got his material from to write his biography of Jesus? We are told thirdly, from people- eyewitnesses, v 2, ‘just as they were handed down by eyewitnesses and servants of the word.’ Sometimes people say, what happened was such a long time ago - how can we be sure? Well, of course you can’t prove Christianity like you can prove a chemical reaction by carrying out an experiment in a laboratory. But then again you can’t ‘prove’ that the Battle of Hastings took place, or any other historic event for that matter. It is more like ‘proving’ a case in law. Whether someone is guilty or not is a matter of providing proof beyond all reasonable doubt- weighing up the evidence. And in most cases you are dependent upon the testimony of eyewitnesses. The question is: are they reliable, were they actually there? ‘Ah,’ you say, ‘Luke’s Gospel was written some 40 years or so after the events. That is a long time. The memory can play all sorts of tricks. You can also allow later experiences colour your recollection, as we know so that when we were children it always snowed at Christmas and was always sunny in the summer school holidays. What is more, these ‘servants of the word’ Luke mentions are obviously apostles or missionaries and so they were biased, they had an agenda’ Is that what you think? Well, let me tell you something. My son Philip and I had the privilege of visiting Pearl Harbour a few years ago. While we were there we heard a man speak called Don Stratton. Don had just turned 80 years old and for over 60 years he had not related the events of which he spoke in remarkable detail that day, except that earlier he had been carefully quizzed by a historian. The day Pearl Harbour was attacked by the Japanese on December 7th, 1941 he was a 19 year old sailor who was in a gun turret of the battleship Arizona. After the first wave of Japanese bombers, 55 of 60 of his fellow crew members at his station were lying beside him dead. He was only one of five who survived. He managed to get out and also save other sailors, which meant crossing through a wall of fire, hand over hand via a rope which was suspended 45 feet in the air. Don was then laid out on the grass with 60% of his body burned. He should have died. But he didn’t. He recovered and went back as a sailor into the war. Now what is the point of that? Well, it is this: Don Stratton had an experience he would never forget. He was part of history. Every agonising second of that day was etched into his memory. He could remember and tell in vivid detail something that had happened over 60 years ago, as if it were only yesterday. Now I take it Don Stratton was an honest man, a modest man too in that he didn’t want to talk about what happened and so was a real hero in my books. But what would we say to someone who would dismiss him, by claiming ‘Well, he would say that, he was biased, he was an American. It was too long ago.’? We would say, ‘Look he was there, he was a witness, and he has the scars to prove it- listen to him. This was a major life changing event- Pearl Harbour, no less, you are not going to have an experience like that and forget it are you?’ Well, what is even that compared to the coming of Jesus? A mega life changing event if ever there was one. In Luke’s Gospel we are in the world of fact not fiction, based upon memories not myths. Pearl Harbour and the resurrection are in the same world, operating on the same level- history. And that is one reason why I am a Christian and not a Buddhist or a Hindu- for Christianity is rooted in factual history, not fancy ideas.


So what’s the big deal? This may be interesting but is it important? Well, it is very important for all sorts of reasons. Let me mention two- one for those of you who are Christians and one for those of you who are not yet wanting to count yourself as a believer.


If you are a Christian then at some point in your life you are going to hit some real problems which will throw you. If it hasn’t already happened, one day it will. You will get ill, someone you know will get ill, a tragedy might hit you or your emotions just leave you flat and then you begin to wonder whether all that you have believed is nothing but a pipe dream. What will you do then? I can tell you what you shouldn’t do- rely on the way you feel, because feelings are just that- feelings. They are not necessarily a good gauge on the way things really are at all- just the way you feel. No, when things see dark, when God seems distant, it is not feelings you must appeal to but facts. As someone has said, ‘I may not know why. But I do know why I trust the God who knows why.’ That is when we can thank God that he raised up a Luke to give us the facts to enable us with the help of God’s Spirit to keep going. As Luke says, here ‘so you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.’


But suppose you are here and not yet a Christian believer? What value can Luke’s Gospel be to you? Well, it is this: you don’t have to take anything on blind faith. God is very interested in you and wants to establish a personal relationship with you, but he doesn’t want to violate your integrity by demanding that you put your mind to oneside. Not all he. He appeals to you mind, he wants to give you evidence for belief as well as meet with you through his Son Jesus Christ and this is the place where you meet him. He simply asks you that you give it a chance and look at the facts which in turn lead to faith. 

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